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Displaying all posts by Rob Barrett.
Losing Faith in Church
December 12, 2018 | Rob Barrett
Losing Faith in Church
A young man in the circle decided to be vulnerable: “I have never seen an example of a Christian life in church that I want to follow.” What happened next shocked me. One by one, the others in the circle nodded their agreement. I shook my head in astonishment and they shook their heads in wonder that I found this unanimous sentiment surprising. We had gathered a group of young people to talk about their experiences of church. The conversation had started off with the expected themes: the sermons, the music, the youth group, and the conflicts. But the mood changed when the “I have never seen…” voice spoke up. I reflexively brought up mental images of the many faithful exemplars who had invested in me. I couldn’t imagine my own life apart from all that they had taught me by their (very different) examples. So what was I to make of this poor young man who hadn’t been steeped among such saints? Was he just blind to what surrounded him? One of the “me, either” voices elaborated on the theme: “It’s not just church. My parents are Christians, too, but their messy divorce said something very different to me.” Stories and experiences began to flow, with one common element: The Christian lives around them hadn’t reflected the words preached, the Scripture read, and the professions spoken. These young people perceived that something was terribly wrong with the faith spoken or the faith lived…or both. (Im)plausibility Structures Christian doubt doesn’t always stem from intellectual puzzles or encounters with evil. Those sorts of difficulties are real and serious, but I focus here on a different, and perhaps more pressing, reason for doubt: disappointment with lived examples of the faith. Something was missing around the circle that evening. There was no compelling vision for Christian living. These representatives of the next generation were looking for a pattern to step into, and what they saw as available to them, both individually and corporately, was unconvincing. Upon hearing such complaints, it would be easy to accuse them of hypocrisy or laziness. Shouldn’t they attend to their own spiritual lives rather than judging those around them? We might do well, however, to listen carefully and ask ourselves how their doubt could be a gift that challenges us to live a more plausible faith. In a recent book, Walter Moberly incisively explores the importance of the lived existence of the church as a plausibility structure for faith.[1] Drawing on Peter Berger’s sociology of knowledge, Moberly argues that the church “is indispensable for giving content to, and making accessible, the enduring and universal significance of the biblical witness.”[2] For us to become Christians in the first place, there must be a community that persuasively embodies the faith. We come to faith not merely by evaluating the Christian worldview as philosophically viable, but through significant people in our lives who live it out in rich, compelling, and beautiful ways. Beyond our entrance into the faith, these models are also required for remaining in the faith. As Berger puts it, “To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep on taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility.”[3] For the young people in that circle, the church’s performance of the faith was a crumbling plausibility structure. One doesn’t need to look far for possible sources of disappointment in the church. We are assailed almost daily by headlines of sexual abuse by Christian leaders from all strands of the church. As horrible as the abuse itself is, the more damning parts of the story are the follow-on efforts at keeping everything quiet, image control, and protecting leaders and institutions. As the holy-sounding words of confession, repentance, and forgiveness are trotted out, young people are watching carefully, and they have sensitive baloney detectors (to put it mildly). When the secular media lead the way in caring for the downtrodden and naming the problems, and when the state decides it must enact mandatory reporting laws to force church leaders to do the right thing, is it any wonder that these other secular structures of life have more plausibility? While not everyone has a connection to sexual abuse (though far too many do), most young people today have LGBT friends. They know that many Christian sexual minorities are struggling to faithfully bring their inner experiences into harmony with their religious commitments. Are the adults in their churches offering a pathway to Christian flourishing for these friends? Dogmatic proclamations must sometimes be made, but also important is the manner of life that leads up to, through, and beyond such proclamations. If the church fails to provide a plausible vision for these friends, no wonder doubt about its plausibility for one’s own life, which is similarly complex in its own way, might not be far behind. Examples could be multiplied. Research by the Barna Group has revealed six themes young people cite in their explanations for their disconnection from the church. They characterize the church as overprotective, shallow, invalidly exclusive, anti-science, simplistic and judgmental about sex, and intolerant of doubt.[4] One way of drawing this together is that they find Christians unwilling to engage the complexities of the world as it really is.[5] What do they see Christians doing when the uncertainties and pressures of life mount? Do we, at that point, leave our faith at the door and tap different resources to make sense of the world and guide our action? If we do, we inadvertently testify to the implausibility of our faith. A Way Forward In such times, what might it look like to testify to the adequacy of Christ? Has God truly given us everything we need (2 Peter 1:3), even when facing the truly complex challenges of life? If it is indeed true that the lived experience of the Christian community is important for making the claims of the Christian faith plausible, then our first responsibility to those doubting their faith is clear: We must be the church. We must live as the Christian community we claim to be. If we are to be persuasive about the truth of the Christian faith, we must live true, persuasive lives.  But what could this possibly mean? Our first reaction to such a mandate might well be to humbly confess that we have both failed to do so and, then, that we cannot help but fail. A truly faithful life “worthy of the calling with which we have been called” (Ephesians 4:1) might well seem to be beyond our grasp and even our comprehension. Who can live out the mandates of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)? When has anyone lived up to the “simple” command to love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34)? Which Christian community has fulfilled Paul’s summons to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” as he emptied himself and became a servant unto death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11)? If the plausibility of the faith depends on our performance, we may well wonder if the faith must remain forever implausible. However, the challenge we face is not to become what we cannot be. Rather, it is to speak honestly as we continue our pursuit. We can speak truthfully because we are confident in Christ, not ourselves. That the church is filled with flawed disciples should surprise no one. That such a church might dare to tell the truth about it, just might.  Moberly acknowledges that the people of God make the faith plausible despite how “disappointing and frustrating their performance often is.”[6] Where does that leave us? If we accept our first obligation of “being the church,” our second obligation is then to invite others, perhaps especially the doubting, to observe and participate in this life of the church. As Moberly observes, this shared life of the church will always be under negotiation,[7] which is a nice way of saying it will be filled with conflict. If our faith is to truly intersect with reality, the complexities and conflicts must be received as part of that truth. It must be that Christ will, somehow, graciously glorify himself exactly there. We don’t have the option of inviting doubters into an unspoiled church, only a conflicted, challenged one. This is exactly the place where plausible testimony to Christ originates. The New Testament church was filled with conflict and failure. Even a quick scan of Acts and the epistles reveals this plainly. The scriptural testimony assures us that Christ isn’t defeated by conflict within his body. Rather, his presence in the midst of it opens up new possibilities for witness even amidst the brokenness. Indeed, perhaps the beauty of the gospel shines most brightly in the midst of our conflicts handled openly and honestly, with full trust that God will work alongside us to restore what we have broken. Recapitulating the examples above, perhaps Christian faithfulness is not negated but becomes apparent particularly in the midst of our pained attempts at responding honestly to the plague of sexual abuse within the church, our faltering handling of our sexuality, and the crucible-intensity that can arise within marriage. In our hard-pressed situations, the life of Jesus is revealed, if only we will testify truthfully (2 Corinthians 4). I was formed as an adult Christian in a church where it was well-known that marriage was a difficult road. This was talked about in sermons and by couples who were taking it one day at a time. Marital challenges were one of many places where Christian commitments became decisive on the journey of life. This was important to me, not only to prepare for marriage, but as a plausibility structure for the way of Jesus, which sustains the inevitable collisions between covenant love and human sinfulness. What shouldn’t be an option for us is lying and covering up the difficulties and conflicts. The real church—the one that gives plausibility to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is messy, complicated, contested, and plausible. My mother likes to tell the story of my 5-year old commentary on her scurrying around to tidy the house for guests. I am said to have asked, “Why don’t we let them see how we really live?” Yes, why not let the doubters see how Christians really live? Even if this sounds like a good direction, in my experience it is always difficult at any given moment to take a step toward vulnerable transparency. Each messy situation has its own excuse. “We should wait until we know better what we are doing.” “Being honest about these particular things would only tear people’s faith down.” “There is too much at stake in this case to say what is truly going on.” But it is exactly in these toughest of situations that the opportunity is richest. Are we willing to testify to the difference the way of cross and resurrection makes when we are facing our own crucifying challenges? For some reason, we too often think that faith is bolstered by hiding the difficulties Christians face. Quite the opposite. Young people can sniff out hypocrisy from a mile away.  The world is filled with people offering quick fixes and easy answers. Christian communities have the possibility of offering a richer vision of human flourishing, one that rings truer. When we confess our lack of easy answers and vulnerably invite others into our difficult places of struggle, the difference the gospel makes becomes apparent. The little miracles we so often overlook—humbly asking for forgiveness, praying without seeing results, receiving communion, caring for an ailing spouse, and on and on—become apparent as the miracles they are when they flow from Christ’s presence in our midst, especially when we’re simply doing what Jesus commands and not trying to impress anyone. When we invite doubters to “come and see,” to come up close and inspect the body of Christ, wounds and all, we offer a testimony that is more than intellectual argument and manicured image. We offer an example of Christian faithfulness fit for the real world. Such a faith marks out a pathway worth following as it points forward to Christ as the only one truly worth following. [1] R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith (Baker Academic, 2018). This concept was suggested earlier by Dennis Hollinger, “The Church as Apologetic: A Sociology of Knowledge Perspective,” Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (IVP Academic, 1995), 182-93. [2] Moberly, 101. [3] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Anchor, 1967), 158. [4] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith (Baker Books, 2011), 91-93. [5] Kinnaman, 98. [6] Moberly, 101. [7] Moberly, 153.   Rob Barrett is the Director of Forums and Scholarship at The Colossian Forum.   We rely on the faithful support of those who envision a more beautiful church, especially in the midst of conflict.  Please consider making a year-end gift today. 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Help for a Church in Crisis
March 7, 2018 | Rob Barrett
Help for a Church in Crisis
A church crisis strains the whole congregation. There are no techniques for quickly easing those strains. The Colossian Forum takes a long view on these painful situations, focusing not on the quick fix but the opportunity for renewed discipleship. Step 1: There is always a path of faithfulness The first thing to remember is that there is always a path of faithfulness before you. While you work on the problem facing you, continually ask, “What might faithfulness to God look like right now?” No matter how messed up and hopeless things seem, God has given you everything you need to be faithful to him. Seek that out. The Sunday school basics are especially true in a crisis. Step 2: Look for how to be faithful to one another Take a deep breath and see if there is a space in the chaos for rebuilding broken relationships. Seek out those with whom you disagree. Pursue the virtues that build unity: humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and love (Ephesians 4:2). Crises are usually filled with the deeds of the flesh—impurity, enmity, strife, jealousy, rage, and divisions—rather than the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-23). Now’s the time for adopting Christ’s pattern of valuing others more than oneself (Philippians 2:1-11). Step 3: Look to the future Crises shine a spotlight on our brokenness. As uncomfortable as it is to see our dark side, we are reminded of God’s commitment to transform us more into the likeness of Christ. As your church is tarnished by half-truths, gossip, and power plays, be willing to let God see how ugly and destructive fleshly instincts are. Learning this anew won’t by itself re-form your character, but it can re-energize the journey of discipleship. As the pressure of this crisis eases over time, don’t just sigh in relief and return to life as usual. The next crisis looms. Use the lull between crises to take up the spiritual disciplines that God has provided to become the kinds of people who can engage the next one better. A church crisis can be disheartening, but it can also bring us face-to-face with God’s call to be transformed. By God’s grace, today’s mess might lead to a better handling of tomorrow’s mess. Not just by learning new crisis management techniques, but by renewing a commitment to the basic Christian practices: worship, prayer, Bible study, giving, self-denial, and so on. These are not mere busy work. They are the Spirit’s ways of building up a church that is ready to testify to God’s saving power. As you stumble through today’s crisis, your testimony may focus on God’s forgiveness and healing in the midst of failure. But have hope that God will, little by little, have you soon testifying to how he has enabled you to love one another more truly and deeply, especially when tested under pressure.
The Magic of Entering Another's World
February 7, 2018 | Rob Barrett
The Magic of Entering Another's World
One prospective Colossian Forum participant put it this way: “What will we do after I say my piece, he says I’m wrong, then he says his piece and I say he’s wrong?” Nobody wants to repeat the same, tired arguments yet again. Or worse, what about when there is absolutely nothing to talk about? “Evolution is established reality so stop saying it isn’t.” “The Bible clearly says homosexual activity is evil so I’m not listening.” End of story. No more discussion. What then? Beyond deadlocked arguments, these are seemingly inescapable mires of incomprehensibility. But we serve the Lord who demolishes dividing walls (Ephesians 2:14). Crossing the rubble of the demolition begins by desiring to see things—if even for a moment—through the other’s eyes. Or even to feel the weight of what so convinces the other. This moves toward the truth. It is the way of Jesus, who walked alongside Pharisees, tax collectors, and prostitutes. He brought them life where they were without leaving them there. Jesus invited people into His world by painting pictures of His kingdom that made sense in their world. Entering another’s world demands firm rootedness in my own. “Open-mindedness” to others is not intellectual laziness or confusion but sets me aside for a moment to care for another. And so we imitate Christ: “Value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Talking in Colossian Forums isn’t just about transferring information. It’s about visiting strange, new worlds where we kindle shared desire for truth, shared yearning for friendship and shared devotion to Jesus. Since these things are far beyond our grasp, we ask for God’s help…together. “Please open my brother’s eyes…and my heart,” we sometimes beg. Only then can we voice our frustration: “How can you think the way you do?” An honest question seeking an honest answer. Now we’re talking. There’s no magic for entering another’s world. It’s like any new friendship. We ask each other’s story. “How did you come to faith? What kind of church shaped you? When have you doubted? How have you suffered?” We talk about what we fear will go wrong if the other side wins. We talk about why we think the other is damaging the church and what we admire about each other. We pray for each other. And, yes, we talk about the complex questions and challenges that divide us. After we talk, we need to return to prayer. We give thanks for being drawn closer to God and one another. We repent of how we’ve wronged God and one another. We voice our hope that He will continue to hold all things together (Colossians 1:17). It’s hardly rocket science, but that’s the kind of talking across difference that keeps drawing us back for more.
Re-shaping and Re-forming Through Conflict
December 20, 2017 | Rob Barrett
Re-shaping and Re-forming Through Conflict
Q: How can a conflict be a place of Christian formation? A: While most people see a divisive issue as a problem to overcome, at The Colossian Forum we see such conflicts as places of growth. Conflict shines light on our souls. When pressures mount, our character becomes apparent. Some of what we see is disappointing, as when we protect ourselves more than our vulnerable neighbor. On the other hand, when humility emerges under pressure, it is humility indeed. But beyond learning about ourselves, conflicts are classrooms for learning new habits. Messy conflicts are more than problems to be solved. They place us on the brink of being more deeply formed as Christians. Unfortunately, we have been deeply formed by our polarized culture. The 24-hour news cycle teaches us that there are two ways of seeing the world: a right way and a wrong way, and that both can be summarized in a tweet. Our constant consumption of news, of arguments, information, facts, and stats from our channel of choice plays to our belief that if we can just deploy the right information with enough flair, the world will be forced to see things our way. But then we discover (over and over again) that this doesn’t work. The other side always has a counterargument. We get frustrated and begin thinking of them as willfully naïve, stupid, or just plain evil. Each time the news cycle goes around, we are tempted to increasing viciousness. Our capacity for living according to Christ’s pattern grows weaker and weaker. But there’s always a God-pleasing way forward for Christians. When we recognize our malformation, we have the opportunity to seek God’s gracious work that will re-form us into the shape we were intended to be. And we have a role in this reshaping work. Christians have always recognized that “getting saved” is only the beginning of growing in faithfulness. Walking this road of formation, of discipleship, is a central mark of the Christian life. Our formation as disciples proceeds best if it flows out of more than good intentions. Christians have generally understood certain practices to build good Christian character. Prayer, Bible reading, receiving the Lord’s Supper, hymn singing, giving to those in need: such traditional practices form Christians (by God’s grace) into people who are patient, humble, truthful, and loving. These basic Christian practices can be helpfully complemented by additional practices that are particularly suited for responding to the cultural pressures of the age. The Colossian Way is a practice of engaging a challenging topic while simultaneously pursuing obedience and faithfulness to Christ. Such a practice channels the pressure and energy around a “hot topic” into constructive spiritual formation. At the same time, good formation is the best pathway for solving the problem before us.
Listening and Tolerance: What's the Difference?
August 24, 2016 | Rob Barrett
Listening and Tolerance: What's the Difference?
The Colossian Forum advocates we should listen to those we disagree with. Do you mean we should tolerate all views, even errors?  Listening to Christian brothers and sisters certainly helps us understand where they’re coming from. Often we even start to sympathize with them. But what do we do after we start to understand someone we disagree with? Many suggest that tolerance should be our goal. Difference is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but we allow space for others to chart their own course. Tolerance preaches agreeing to disagree, leaving each other alone. But The Colossian Forum believes that Christians are called to something much better—and more difficult—than tolerance. We belong to Christ and to each other. We share a common life, which Paul likens to a body (1 Corinthians 12). Many of our differences are intentionally given to us by the Holy Spirit so that we can build up Christ’s body (vv. 7, 11). Our differences aren’t inconveniences to be tolerated, but gifts for our overall good. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don't need you!’” (v. 21). The eye doesn’t tolerate the hand. It loves and serves it. But eyes think differently from hands. A healthy body coordinates its members across differences. We must listen to work together. Yet sometimes difference comes from one part really getting it wrong. The hand suffers if the eye is blind. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (v. 26). If the hand is to help an ailing eye, it has to think like an eye. This is hard work. It is our calling. The goal of Christ’s body is not tolerance of difference, but building up the body amidst difference. So we must listen.
A Reflection on the Gay Christian Network Conference 2015
February 25, 2015 | Rob Barrett
A Reflection on the Gay Christian Network Conference 2015
Joyful people surrounded me, but I must admit that I felt very alone. Many of these thousand-plus brothers and sisters in Christ had found respite from the loneliness of being a sexual minority by googling “gay and Christian” and discovering the Gay Christian Network conference. One Australian lesbian Christian flew around the world because she needed to be where, for once, people didn’t make wrong assumptions about her and find her strange and confusing. But here I was—suddenly a minority because I’m straight—and I started to understand what my Australian sister meant. Like when a new friend spied my wedding ring and asked, “Are you married to a man or a woman?” I felt like I was reliving my experience of dwelling in a foreign country, where the cultural assumptions and way-things-work-around-here were just different enough that I would often get caught unaware. I felt like starting every sentence, “This is probably really inappropriate for me to say, but…” At registration, they asked if I wanted a red or blue lanyard…What? “Red means no photographs; blue if you don’t mind pictures.” Why would I mind having my picture taken? Oh…right…then people will think I’m gay. I began hearing stories of people coming out and courageously choosing blue for the first time. When news of an expected protest spread, the GCN hosts assured us that our safety was their primary concern. I had flashbacks to visiting a Christian college last year where the chaplain told me the college was approaching homosexuality questions with one top priority in mind: “We don’t want any students to die over this issue this year.” I was reminded of my world of majority privilege where holding my views doesn’t risk my being attacked or spiraling into suicide. This isn’t my normal world, but it is theirs. This culture of uncertainty leads me to question the little things I do without thinking. Am I holding my hands to hide my wedding ring or flaunt it? Did I just inject a reference to my wife into that conversation to signal that I’m straight? Or did I confuse things by implying I’m in a mixed-orientation marriage? I notice others around me adeptly dropping details that help others understand where they’re coming from. Every culture requires new skills. A number of the conference presentations I hear present a common narrative of moving to a marriage-equality position as the traditional Christian position is found wanting – at least in practice, if not in theology. There’s a feeling in the air that everyone will eventually end up becoming affirming. The traditionalists are just holding out against the inevitable. That’s hard for some of my more conservative gay Christian friends to hear: the pressure comes from all sides— and from inside—to conclude that God smiles on same-sex sex. I have breakfast with a man who invested years into trying to become straight. His story included a pattern of resisting and then falling to temptation, of running off to the city for anonymous sex. He had married a woman as part of trying to get on the right track. No one could blame her for divorcing him. I’m sad for him, but nobody needs to remind him that these were moral failures—he’s very aware. Then he surprises me by saying he just can’t reconcile his faith with affirming same-sex behavior. His earnest struggle to be faithful—failures and all—is impressive and leads me to pray for him. He’s got a hard row to hoe and the Christian support he needs isn’t easy to come by. One of the many beautiful parts of this culture comes from the common experience of having to hide and keep secrets. To be gay and Christian is to risk condemnation from both the gay community and the church, so most have learned to live with being guarded. So they know the other side: how much of a gift it is to hear somebody out, no matter what crazy thing they’re saying, and to give them a hug. There will be plenty of time for criticism later. So I start opening up and asking my questions and sharing what I’m thinking, sometimes saying some pretty crazy things as I try to sort out what’s going on inside of me. The resilient welcomes are refreshing. The morning of the protest, I find myself in a tilt-a-whirl of Christian attempts at faithfulness. Supporters from area churches form lines to protect conference attendees from the protestors. Christians protecting Christians from Christians, [as someone noted]. A man with a megaphone yells at me, “You’re going to hell!” followed by “Haven’t you ever read the Bible?” Well, actually I have, and actually I’m straight, and actually you have no idea who I am. And you don’t know anything about the people I’m with, either. I appreciate the supporters who smile and say, “God loves you!” and “You are welcome here!”, but they don’t know me either. I feel alone again. But a gay friend runs up to me—she’s serving doughnuts to the protestors—puts her arm around me and walks me through the confusion. Maybe I’m not so alone. Becoming a minority for a few days builds a bond with those who suffer these pains every day. I’m a different person for spending a few days of disorientation among so many every-day sexual minorities, as they enjoy a moment of solace from the lonely pressure of being different. I pray that the Holy Spirit is at work within me—and within these newly discovered sisters and brothers—for the glory of Christ.   As you know, TCF has begun to help the church address difficult questions surrounding faithful expressions of sexuality. Instead of endorsing one or another side, we invite Christians to work on these questions together, trusting that Christ’s reconciling love will guide us – together – into all truth. In January, two of our staff members attended the Gay Christian Network conference. This conference gathered LGBT Christians, their friends, family, allies, and pastors together for worship and mutual support. We attended to deepen our friendships with Christians who seek to engage these questions faithfully. The experience was fruitful for our staff, although – as you will see – their reflections on the conference differ markedly. Their posts highlight just how varied our life experiences can be and, therefore, just how critical it is for Christians to be in genuine conversation with one another, working together to transform our conflicts into opportunities for faithful discipleship.

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